Je ne comprends pas The City of Lost Children, d’accord

There were two big events in my childhood/teenhood that caused me to stay home from school for several days and recover in bed or on the living room couch with lots of tea, buttered white toast, and TV sitcom marathons. Also videogames on the television, all on my SNES or PlayStation 1 with the kewl PSM lid cover, but I did eat up nearly an entire run of Gilligan’s Island at some point too though perhaps that was just a highly visual fever dream. My favorite character is Mary Ann, by the way, and the episode most firmly cemented in my brain revolved around a method actor visiting the island and pretending to be a Tarzan-like jungle lord. Shrugs.

Right, back to the stay-at-home events. One had to do with me getting my wisdom teeth removed, and the other was related to an injury to my left knee that required surgery, pain killers crushed up in applesauce, and physical therapy. Both were not fun and had me in various states of wooziness, and I don’t remember exactly which event it was, but for one of them, my mother let me rent a bunch of games for the PlayStation to keep me entertained. Me thinks it was for the wisdom teeth removal, since I knew when that was happening and wanted some guaranteed pleasures during the downtime.

Well, I selected three PlayStation 1 games from our local store that rented games (not a Blockbuster, sorry), all on their box art alone–Destruction Derby, The City of Lost Children, and Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror. I mean, look at how cool these covers are:

Er, maybe not. Well, I thought they were killer then.

Of these, I remember enjoying Destruction Derby a lot, not understanding how a point-and-click adventure game worked in Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror, especially using a controller, and being completed dumbfounded by The City of Lost Children, which, if you didn’t already know, is an adaptation of the 1995 movie of the same name by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Also, if you’re not familiar with the film, you have no chance of understanding what’s going on in this game–trust me on this. The introductory cutscene doesn’t really explain anything, not even introducing you to the character you will be playing as for the entire game. Thankfully, the manual offers a brief summary of the plot, but even that is not much to work from.

I’ll do my best here. The City of Lost Children takes place in a nameless, steampunk-inspired city by the seaside. A less-than-good scientist, most likely evil, has his henchmen kidnap children in order to steal their dreams to prevent the process of his premature aging. Y’know, normal kidnapping reasons. Anyways, the opening cutscene shows one of these children getting kidnapped, and that’s really all the information the game gives you before giving you control over 12-year-old Miette, which means “crumb” in French. You start inside a classroom, with a pair of Siamese sisters at the front telling you to go steal money from some hut because they said so.

Little to my teenage knowledge, this was an adventure game. Not exactly a point and click one, but still one where you walked around, gathered items, and made progress by using those items on people or other items to make things happen. Like a Metroidvania, but with less action involved. Considering it would still be many, many years before I would fall in love with the genre, I probably went into The City of Lost Children thinking it was in the same vein as things like Resident Evil or Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain. Boy was I not at all right. Not one teeny tiny bit. I’d later come to have fun with Blazing Dragons and Discworld II: Mortality Bytes!, so this being an adventure game alone had nothing to do with my terrible time with it. That is a result of it being exceedingly obtuse and poorly designed.

A strong memory that stands out: Miette, saying “I can’t do anything” or “I can’t manage it,” every time you interact on something she can’t do anything with. Which was on a lot of items in that early portion of the game I banged my head against. Compound this with the sluggish, tank-like controls and sometimes odd camera angles that made it hard to see where something lead to another screen, and my rented time with the game was spent wandering around the first few areas aimlessly until I decided enough was enough and at least knew what to do with my vehicle in Destruction Derby–crash it. Which is a shame, because I thought The City of Lost Children looked stunning at the time, and, while the polygons are not as sharp as today’s standards, there’s still a strong, off-kilter aesthetic here from Psygnosis, the British developer that gave us gems like Colony Wars, G-Police, and, uh, Hexx: Heresy of the Wizard, that makes this one of the more unique-looking games from the generation.

Anyways, I’m sure someone has paid it forward and done a recorded playthrough of The City of Lost Children and put it up for free on the Internet for everyone to watch. Maybe one day I’ll even search it out. Until then, I hope you enjoyed this random trip down my memory lane.

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